ALT-N's MDaemon offers easiest management

Management of a midsized e-mail system can be complicated. System performance has to be monitored to ensure reasonable response time for end users. Protocol engines, such as SMTP, POP and IMAP, have a host of configuration variables and options, many of which are obscure or idiosyncratic. End user configuration entails more than just adding accounts, as users will have quotas, filtering rules and other settings to be managed. Messages flowing through the system can get stuck or lost, so log and queue visibility becomes important. And don't forget important task support backups, message archiving and e-mail retention controls. It's a tall order.

Microsoft Exchange 2007 has a mixed record here — a statement we must echo for every alternative product tested. Our testing focused more on system management than on user management as the latter varies wildly depending on how an organization wants to use the e-mail server. For example, if you wanted to keep user information in Active Directory, anything but Kerio MailServer or Scalix Enterprise Edition would be a non-starter.

On the other hand, if you don't have Active Directory, or don't want to keep user information stored there, that feature would mean nothing to you. A slew of user-based features, along with multi-domain management, made these products very different — but impossible to rank.

In system management, configuration, monitoring and operations, we found more commonality of function , but could still pinpoint important differences. Alt-N Technologies' MDaemon quickly rose to the top of the stack as one of the easiest products to manage, especially when something went wrong. The logging and visibility into system queues is certainly the best we've ever seen in over 20 years of looking at mail servers. 

In addition to overview pages which show messages flowing through the system, MDaemon has a queue manager that lets you click on stuck messages and take actions (such as delete or reject). MDaemon also had very good performance reporting tools which gave us a good view into how the system was running, especially under heavy load. Other features such as simple message retention management, per-user filtering and automated configuration backup help to round out a good management system.

We did find fault with parts of MDaemon's management scheme. For example, there is no message tracking tool, and the backup system only covers the MDaemon configuration, not the user mailboxes. But overall, any e-mail manager using MDaemon's tools will feel in control of their e-mail system and be ready to understand and solve problems as they come up. Unfortunately, MDaemon reserves its best management functions for a Windows-only management tool. While there is a Web-based management package, it is more suitable for configuration and not very good for system monitoring.

Also at the top of the management pack in terms of functionality is Kerio MailServer, even though it is one of the two products tested that requires an add-on management tool, and can't be controlled through a Web browser (the other is MailSite Fusion). That's fine if you're sitting at your desk all day, but few e-mail administrators are that immobile.

That said, Kerio MailServer's management tools make it easy to build and manage a mail server, as well as understand what is happening when something goes wrong. In our evaluation, Kerio did a better job than MDaemon in some important areas, such as automated backups, but fell short by not having a message retention management tool.

Each product tested had some significant failing in its management system. But MailSite Fusion, in fact, fell behind for several reasons. Performance statistics in MailSite Fusion are normally exported through WMI counters, which makes them easily visible in PerfMon, a tool familiar to any Windows administrator. That's a great idea, and it should have given the product a nice edge in performance monitoring. Except for the fact that these counters don't work in Windows 2008, so we couldn't see how things were moving.

Secondly, MailSite Fusion's queue management tool was Windows Explorer: you point it at a directory, and then you can click on a message to open it in Notepad and see inside. That's beyond primitive; it's positively silly. There are no built-in backups, message retention management tools or log management automation. Of course, no product's management is all bad.

MailSite Fusion makes extensive use of the Sieve language, a standards-based e-mail manipulation language that gives the administrator some unusual levels of control over message flow unavailable in most other products.

CommuniGate Pro has a user interface that is confusing, difficult to learn and error-prone. Performance statistics are given in the least palatable format possible, the Venezuelan Beaver cheese of performance management, while the lack of integrated backup and message retention tools make it difficult to keep e-mail safe. While CommuniGate Pro has good logging and queue visibility tools, they are embedded in a GUI which frustrates any attempt at understanding the flow of mail through the system. While CommuniGate Pro's webmail tool, Pronto, is a joy to behold, the system management interface is an impediment to use.

Scalix Enterprise Edition and Zimbra Collaboration Suite both drop to the bottom of the pack because they don't have integrated management systems at all. Both have fairly nice looking Web interfaces, but neither have all of the tools in one place.

It's not just a question of having to go to a command line to accomplish something important (as you will have to in both Zimbra and Scalix, frequently). It's a matter of the tools being assembled with a very thin veneer of management laid on top but without any real integration at the backend. Scalix Enterprise Edition is certainly the worst offender.

For example, if you want to enable SSL on IMAP or POP in any other product, it's a matter of simply clicking a box. With Scalix, you have to track down a separate package, Stunnel (SSL Tunnel), and build a configuration to wrap around services already running on the server. Unless, of course, you want to enable SSL in SMTP.

Because Scalix uses standard Sendmail, it's possible to turn on SSL, but it means diving deep into the world of Sendmail configuration — something that products like those tested are supposed to free you from. And if you want to turn SSL on in the Web server to secure administrative traffic or webmail … well, that's already done, but if you want to clean up the certificates so that they're legitimate, you'll soon be editing Apache and Tomcat configuration files.

What Scalix does have is an incredibly powerful set of command-line tools for managing the message store — tools left over from the days of HP OpenMail and predating Web-based GUIs of any kind. For example, aside from Exchange itself, Scalix is the only product we tested with enough tools to build a real message retention system.

Zimbra Collaboration Suite does a better job than Scalix at linking together a pile of open source and proprietary tools into a single view, but that's not saying much. Performance monitoring is nicely done, and backup processes are very well thought-out. But those are bright spots in a flashy, but insufficient, management system. Logging, for example, is a complete mess with five different logging directories, three completely different logging subsystems and no integration. Knowing where to look in the logs without spending a month with the system is impossible. While there's outstanding documentation that describes the innards of the system, what we learned from looking at products such as MDaemon and Kerio is that a GUI can help reduce the learning and re-learning curve substantially.

Some of Zimbra's command line tools are also zany. For example, the message tracking tool — something that I'm incredibly grateful to have — is case-sensitive and doesn't actually have all messages in its databases, making it nearly useless for trying to track down missing incoming e-mail.

Overall, managers evaluating manageability will find that products such as MDaemon and Kerio have the lowest cost and frustration factor. MailSite Fusion and CommuniGate Pro are hard to use, but with some dedicated study and experience they are something that you'd get used to. Zimbra Collaboration Suite will appeal to the Unix manager who enjoys diving down to the command line, digging through Postfix configurations and restarting the occasional service by hand (as we had to do). Scalix Enterprise Edition's management will be attractive to anyone who has a deep experience with e-mail systems and Unix, and an equally deep distrust and hatred of GUIs and thinks that "vi" is about as visual as they want to get.

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